The Living at Hurford

John Somers was invited by psychiatrist, Dr Gordon Langley, to use theatre as an intervention in a rural community which was coping with the aftermath of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in Devon. A steering group was formed which included community psychiatric nurses who were working amongst farmers and their families, and others with relevant experience of the topic.

Drafts of the script was read by farmers and other agricultural experts and adapted accordingly. The resultant play, written by John Somers, was an Interactive Theatre production, performed first at Langmead Farm, North Tawton in September 2002 with a largely community cast supplemented by two professional actors. This farm had lost its stock to F&MD. Live music was provided by a four-piece band. The play was subsequently recreated in Payhembury Parish at Yellingham Farm with the same professional actors but with a new community cast. This production toured to The Tacchi Morris Arts Centre, Taunton and to the Phoenix Arts Centre, Exeter. In an interesting resonance, in both the Langmead and Yellingham versions, the parts of the two male farmers were played by local farmers.

The Living at Hurford addressed the issue of agricultural change, and particularly how the economic, political and agricultural climate affects the Chaplain family portrayed in the story. The production does not address directly the issue of Foot and Mouth which was such a striking part of much agricultural experience in 2001 and beyond, but it lurks in the background. The performance and audience interaction formed a forum in which people can share their thoughts about what the Chaplain family should do and, indirectly, find something of relevance to their own life. An unusual feature of the play was that, when buying tickets, audience members received a pack of information about Hurford Farm and aspects of the Chaplain family’s life there. In the interactive phase, following chances to talk to the people in the story, the audience discussed the issues raised and decided what the strong woman farmer should do. The actors then played out the consequences of the audience’s decision. In both farm venues, the Saturday night performance was followed by a feast, drinks and a barn dance.

This was a cooperative project between Payhembury Community Theatre and Exstream Theatre Company (of which John Somers was Artistic Director). Although Hurford Farm is fictional, it is closely based on many such small, family farms in East Devon.

See Sidmouth Herald review here.